The Mother Of All Referendums (Slovenia Twenty Years After)

Twenty years ago on this day Slovenes voted on a referendum on independence. The question on 23 December 1990 was straightforward: Should Slovenia become a sovereign and independent country. The decision, as we know, was also fairly straightforward. With record voter turnout (93,5%) as much as 88,5% of all voters voted in favour on what will turn out to be the mother of all Slovenian referendum.


Official Gazette of Republic of Slovenia publishes the law on referendum on independence (source)

Twenty years later the situation seems all but hopeless. The crisis is in full swing, politics and politicians have virtually no credibility left and referendums are a-dime-a-dozen. In the words of the Charlie Watts quartet: You can’t always get what you want.

But really, is it that bad? On one hand, yes. I’m sure people would vote “no” in 1990 if the question would be something along the lines of “Do you want Slovenia to become a country of ever increasing social inequality, political bickering and a seemingly endless supply of either real or perceived scandals and corruption)”.

On the other hand, things are not that bad. I mean, they’re not that bad if one looks at them from the standpoint of 1990s. The issues we are faced with today are nothing compared to the issues Slovenia was facing back then. Twenty years ago it was about survival. It was about whether the nation can make a right choice collectively and hoping that this choice will be proven to have been right some time in the distant future. Today we can, regardless of the despair and dejectedness a lot of people are facing, say that the choice was right. And although – with the power of hindsight – it looks today that it was the only logical choice, that was not the case. It could all have ended very very badly. But it didn’t. Thankfully.

Anniversaries are a welcome interruption to our daily routine and they often remind us that there are issues bigger than our daily problems. That anniversaries are often used or misused to promote a particular political goal is regretful but no-one will get killed over it. That myths are being constructed is also just a sad fact. That Slovenia will today witness not one, but two celebrations – one official organised by the governement of Borut Pahor, the other one organised by Janez Janša and people who claim they represent “the true values” of Slovene independence is a curious fact which serves some immediate political purpose of the opposition, but nothing beyond that.

Because (as the good doctor often says), what everyone keeps forgetting is that there would be no independence without the people of this country, who bit the bullet and leapt into the unknown. That a selected group of individuals today claims exclusive rights to interpretation of events around 23 December 2010 is demeaning to this nation.

Independence today is what we make of it, for better or for worse. Reminding us “what it was all about” helps, but only to the point where it saves us from making the same mistake over and over. Anything beyond that is counter-productive. And there seems to be a lot of that going around lately. And in times of crisis one shuns what is not helpful 😀

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De Referenda

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

In the wake of the fiasco that was the referendum on RTV Slovenia, both the ruling coalition as well as the opposition are (again) mulling changes to referendum legislation. This was of course expected but it is none the less a most unwelcome turn of events, especially since constant abuses of referendum legislation in the minds of what seems to be majority of the voters now warrant limiting legal possibilities for holding a referendum.

There are broadly three sets of proposals in this debate. What (hopefully) follows is their deconstruction.

Set a referendum day

Proposed by Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) of Janez Janša. What the largest opposition party proposes is that a specific day in the year be set by law in advance and on that day any and all referendums which were called early enough in the year are to be held. On the surface, the proposal is quite appealing: no matter how many referendums are called, all the votes are held on the same date and instead of spending four million euro per referendum, you spend four million once and be done with it.

However, there is a huge – and I mean galactic – caveat. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the referendum date would be set on 1 June and the decision to hold a referendum would have to come no later than 30 May, because a month of campaigning has to be allowed for. Technically this means that any law passed after 30 May on which a referendum is to be held, will be “on ice” for up to thirteen months. If there ever was a neat way to temporarily block a law, this is it.

As we know, calling a referendum is a piece of cake in Slovenia, especially if you’re a political party which can muster 30 signatures in the parliament. This was was the case with almost every referendum ever held in Slovenia, be they consultative or subsequent (legislative). If the proposed provision were to be enacted, a law – no matter how urgent or crucial or just plain practical – could be blocked out of sheer politicking just by collecting the necessary signatures. Add to that the fact that by the time the referendum will be held the debate on the issue will have died long ago ans with it all the niceties connected with either “yes” or “no” vote, and you get a situation where the electorate is even less informed about the issue once it actually comes up for a vote and – even more – has to vote on multiple issues at the same time.

Indeed, one can easily argue that the idea of a single referendum day (or even two) per year in fact decreases democratic standards in Slovenia which are not all that high to begin with. Furthermore: although the idea was floated by the largest opposition party it is a given that – despite being prone to losing crucial battles – SDS will in time again be the ruling party in Slovenia. When that happens, such a provision on referendum would work very much against them, especially if they would be still given to radically altering legislation across the board. Actually, pengovsky refuses to believe that SDS leadership is as short-sighted as not to see that and that the entire idea is simply a red herring or a tactical move which – after it will be rejected by the parliament – will enable them to claim that they tried to do something

Set a quorum necessary for validity of referendum

We’ve been over this already in some other setting. But the bottom line is this: if a vote is called and majority of people don’t bother to show up, how can it be that their decision to stay at home has more merit than decision of the minority (no matter how small) which decided to exercise their right to vote? Seriously, people…

Revoke the 30 MP signatures provision

Floated by the ruling left-wing coalition – notably Social Democrats led by PM Borut Pahor – the idea sounds, well, tempting. No doubt a lot of people would see it as taking candy from a spoiled brat. But not really. You see, the “30 signatures” provision is in the constitution for a reason. It is an essential element of a system of checks-and-balances. It provides the parliamentary minority with an instrument to prevent what de Tocqueville and Mills called “tyranny of the majority”. Because not all decisions are good or sensible, even though the majority voted in favour. So the provision goes beyond it’s current use as a political weapon of legal destruction.

Yes, the provision was abused many times under circumstances that -although perfectly legal – didn’t really warrant invoking it. But the parties currently running the show will inevitably come into a situation where they will be glad that the provision is in place. Even more: Slovenia may come into a situation where a question, vital to the future of the republic will be decided on and the only voice of reason will be a small, across-the-isle ad hoc coalition with the “30 signatures” provision being their only hope of preventing a decision of disastrous consequences.

And if you think this is a purely hypothetical scenario, think again. We saw that film a couple of times already. Or at least variations of it. In pengovsky’s opinion, the “30 signatures” provision was and is intended to be used in extreme cases. That it was abused doesn’t mean that it has to be abolished.

What to do?

Nothing. Direct democracy and checks-and-balances are not things you tamper with in a heat of a moment. Besides, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with current referendum legislation. It’s just that it is being abused beyond any sense of decency. But that is not a question of legislation but rather a question of political culture.

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Referendum on RTV Slovenia: A Night To Forget

The final tally of Sunday referendum on the law on RTVSLO was disastrous, to say the least. The law was nixed with 72.64 percent votes against and only 27.36 percent in favour, with a criminally low voter turnout. The counter of voters attending the referendum stopped at 250 079 or only 14.56 percent. The good doctor rightly called it a fiasco. While the inevitable battle for interpretation of results ensued immediately, there are things that should not be overlooked.


(source: The Firm™)

Bottom line is that the law was quashed, meaning that the existing law on RTVSLO, crafted by SDS’ very own chief bulldog Branko Grims remains in effect. The coalition lost this round decisively and without reprieve. Well, without immediate reprieve, at least. Legislation stipulates that following a referendum, no change to a particular law can be attempted for a year. With PM Pahor’s government popularity points hitting the low end of the twenties, the defeat only reiterates what the opinion polls say. Furthermore, this is also major policy defeat for the coalition which put revamping of the law and limiting political influence over the institution high on its agenda.

Carte blanche

Rejection of the law threatens to open a Pandora’s box of pressure being brought to bear on RTVSLO once again. The existing law allows for it and the referendum result now gives the ruling coalition almost a carte blanche to shape the institution according to its own image, just as Janša’s government did after the 2007 referendum on the same issue (when the current law was confirmed). An overwhelming majority of members of Programming and Supervisory boards will still be appointed by the parliamentary majority. This means it is up to good will of politicians to decide whether board members will be people who know what TV and radio are, or people who will more or less faithfully follow party directives. And being dependant on good will of politicians is never a good thing. RTVSLO thus remains a state media and is eons away from becoming public.

However. While resounding, the defeat is not catastrophe for the coalition. Immediately after declaring victory, Janez Janša and his SDS called for Minister of Culture Majda Širca to resign. This was later (predictably) expanded to a claim that the entire government led by Borut Pahor should resign, since they are wasting time on trivial matters, such as the new law. Following government resignation, sayeth the SDS, early election should be called.

Same old, same old

Pengovsky will not go again over why it is next to impossible to call early elections in Slovenia. But constant calls for early elections are becoming really old really fast and only prove that SDS in fact has no serious alternative on how to handle the general situation Slovenia is in right now other than the fact that it is them who should be in power.

Which brings to the next issue at hand. Despite clinching a victory, the SDS can be far from happy. Having thrown shitload of mud in the general direction of Pahor’s government and in the specific direction of minister Širca, despite trying hard to galvanise the vote, less than 15 percent of people showed up at the voting booth and of that less than three quarters voted in line with SDS’ position (a no vote). Even if we assume that everyone who voted against is a SDS supporter (which is not the case), this means that the die-hard base of Janša’s party ammounts to less than 12 percent of Slovene voters. While still a number to be reckoned with, this shows a marked decline in both power and reach of SDS, which – this must be said – is leading the opinion polls for some time now.

So, in purely political terms the winner of the referendum battle is the SDS (or the opposition in general), but in the wider perspective both the coalition and the opposition will want to forget the episode as soon as possible.

Dangers ahead

As written above, the immediate result of the referendum is that RTVSLO remains state rather than public media. But bad news don’t stop here. Since it is obvious that – while legal – the referendum was (ab)used for specific political purposes and that the majority of voters (for one reason or another) wanted to have nothing to do with it, calls for revamping of the referendum legislation are becoming increasingly loud, again especially from the left side of the political spectrum. Indeed, a recent poll showed that were the government call a “referendum on a referendum”, a large majority of people would a) vote and b) vote in favour of restricting possibilities to call a referendum.

Appealing as it may sound, such a move would quite probably be a start of a very bad journey.

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